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State launches new bureau to combat child truancy, trauma

State launches new bureau to combat child truancy, trauma
Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris greets third-grade students after a news conference in the library at Malabar St. Elementary School in Los Angeles, where she discussed her report on elementary school truancy in the state. On Thursday, Harris announced a new Bureau of Children's Justice. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

California officials will launch a new effort aimed at protecting children by combating student truancy, trauma, human trafficking and education discrimination.

In a letter issued to county officials Thursday, state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris announced that the new Bureau of Children's Justice would particularly focus on foster youths.

Such youths are more likely to drop out, fail the high school exit exam, change schools and suffer from disabilities than their peers, research has shown. The state's revised school finance system has shifted more dollars to help those students.

Youths who have been in the foster care system also make up more than half of children involved in commercial sexual exploitation, according to the state Department of Justice.

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State officials said the Department of Justice's new children's bureau would expand work to combat elementary student truancy by Harris, who launched annual statewide reports on the problem three years ago. The state Department of Justice has launched a new program with UC Santa Barbara to develop pilot programs to improve attendance, although which school districts will participate has not yet been disclosed.

Harris also announced Thursday that the state Department of Justice was one of three state agencies selected by the federal Department of Justice to examine the effect of trauma and violence on children, an area of growing public attention. Children exposed to trauma are more likely to commit suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol and struggle in school, according to various local and national studies. The national Defending Childhood initiative aims to better screen children for trauma and develop ways to address the problem.

State officials said the new children's bureau initially would be staffed by five criminal and civil rights attorneys, including two new positions, and legal experts on education, consumer protection, human trafficking and other areas.

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